The Gettysburg Address is perhaps the most iconic speech in American history. Students are required to memorize it, and it has become as important to American political culture as the United States Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. This is unfortunate, because in this speech, Abraham Lincoln invented history and by doing so intellectually nuked the original federal republic.
The address was not a conservative affirmation of founding principles but a revolutionary manifesto that radically transformed America. Lincoln created a “proposition nation” at Gettysburg and crafted the greatest swindle in American political history.
Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, four months after one of the bloodiest battles of the War for Southern Independence. The president was invited almost as an afterthought to the event. He scribbled the speech on the train, a pithy 269 words that took him around two minutes to read to a less than enthusiastic response from the gathered crowd, and Lincoln himself didn’t think his words made much of an impact.
Some members of the press agreed. The Chicago Times called it a “flat and dishwattery” utterance, while a Pennsylvania newspaper labeled it “silly.” Lincoln didn’t realize it at the time, but future generations of Americans would buy his artful lie hook, line, and sinker.
It was common for both Northerners and Southerners to attach their respective causes to the “principles of ’76.” For Southerners, that meant independence and resistance to a foreign power not of their choosing. But for some Northerners—the vast minority—the “principles of ‘76” carried a different meaning, one that Lincoln tapped at Gettysburg.
From the onset of the War, Lincoln professed his desire to save the Union and the Constitution. That was the 1776 that most Northerners wanted to preserve. But at Gettysburg Lincoln changed course. His 1776 constituted a radically different founding.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
This is nothing more than propaganda, and the newspaper editors that called it “silly” were more accurate than anyone is willing to admit today.
Neither Thomas Jefferson nor anyone else in the founding generation paid much attention to the line “all men are created equal.” This was not a radical statement by egalitarian ideologues interested in “liberty, equality, fraternity” as in the French Revolution. It was an affirmation of British history, that British subjects were equal under the law. Lincoln distorted that meaning.
And by classifying the United States in 1776 as a “nation,” Lincoln was cementing a myth that had circulated since the ratification of the Constitution—namely that the United States existed before the States—and he clothing his questionable legal acts in historical legitimacy. But the historical record does not support his position. The United States did not constitute a “nation” in 1776. It was a federal republic held together in common cause against illegal and unconstitutional acts by both King and Parliament. Even proponents of the Constitution recognized this by insisting that the document established a “federal” not a “national” government.
Lincoln continues his fairy tale history by insisting that this “nation of equals” was facing a frontal assault by the South. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated…”
No civil war existed in 1863. The South was not seeking to control the government of the United States, and by insisting that the United States was “conceived and dedicated” to “all men are created equal,” Lincoln “revolutionized the Revolution” as the historian Gary Wills wrote. This would have been news to the founding generation, the majority of whom warned of the dangers of a “national” government.
Lincoln insisted that Union soldiers gave their lives defending his “proposition nation.” But the evidence supports a different conclusion. Desertion rates skyrocketed after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and most Union soldiers, even at the time Lincoln delivered the Address, insisted they were fighting for the Union not the “proposition that all men were created equal.” Even during the War, some Northern States had exclusionary laws that forbade blacks from living there. Racism was as deep rooted in the North as in the South, and Lincoln never had an epiphany that blacks and whites were equal. In 1862 he said that blacks could never be “placed on an equality with the white race…” and insisted that the races be separated. He was opposed to slavery, but not to racism and by no means supported full “equality” in 1863.
Lincoln eulogized the Union men who bled and died at Gettysburg for their dedication to some mythical “unfinished work,” what he poetically believed was “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
These lines have resonated across the decades and have become near theological dogma from an American demigod, but Lincoln was playing fast and loose with the facts, even in 1863. What “new birth of freedom” was he referring to? Slavery still existed in Union controlled regions of the South and Lincoln himself proposed in 1865 to postpone emancipation if the South would simply stop fighting for its independence.
And was the Confederate government not elected “of the people, by the people, and for the people” of the South? The Southern States voted to secede through popularly elected conventions in larger majorities than those which supported American independence in 1776. By waging war against the South, Lincoln was undermining the very principles he pledged to support.
The Gettysburg Address is graceful, but it is as hollow as the soul of an echo. If Lincoln didn’t think it that important, perhaps we should ignore it as well. Our understanding of American government and history would be better for it.